Fantasy illustration and the influence of Norse mythology
Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
— Albert Einstein
The exhibit “Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration” at the Norman Rockwell Museum was the draw for my September visit to Stockbridge, Mass. It is the first full-scale exhibit to explore the broad scope of fantasy art. Artists use a variety of media: prints, watercolors, woodcuts, oils, digital. Their motifs are found in a variety of sources: books, book cover illustrations, and paintings, as well as in more modern outlets, including comics, digital illustrations, films, and computer games. The works reach back in history, “from the myths and archetypes that originated before the written word in stories passed on through oral tradition, to the latest Hollywood blockbusters.”
What struck me first was the beauty and imagination of each artist. What struck me second was how Nordic mythology wended its way through almost every section of this show. With themes such as “The Heroes’ Journey, Fairy Tales and Mythology – Good vs. Evil,” one was transformed back to childhood, realizing that the fears, dreams, and hopes of your youth still lie deep within you.
The exhibit’s main text best describes the complex mythologies and ideologies explored. In the words of Ursula K. Le Guin in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction: “At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence … For as great scientists have said and as all children know, it is by the imagination that we achieve perception, compassion, and hope.”
The subjects depicted reflect universal archetypes, shared by all humankind and probed by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell as credited in the label text. This article specifically pivots around subjects that incorporate specific Norse influences or visual articulations, beginning with Beowulf, set in Denmark.
One lovely and seductive piece is French artist Yoann Lossel’s, Grendel’s Mother, an illustration in a 2017 publication of Beowulf. And, of course, J. R. R. Tolkien was inspired by and brought pieces of this epic tale to a modern audience with his own twist.
Beowulf is also a dragon slayer. Dragons are a dominant subject in this exhibit and a common motif in Viking ornamentation, whether roaring from the prow of sleek ships, curved into runestones or embellishing stave churches.
One image in the exhibit has a cacophony of dragons, enveloping a couple. In the righthand corner sheltered by a wave or sea creatures, is the piece entitled Here There be Dragons by Charles Vess, and what a wonderful title it is for his piece.
There are also several images that depict specific stories and creatures from Norse mythology. In the vein of fantastical creatures, the cropped mysterious oil by Jean-Baptiste Monge, Ragnarok, an end of the world battle from the Poetic and Prose Edda. Jörmungandr, the sea serpent that wraps the earth, Midgard, like a girdle, lurks in mist or battle smoke in this piece. In reality, it is something more sinister. It is Jörmungandr’s poisonous breath, which eventually kills Thor.
The iconic “Viking Shield Maiden” fascinates contemporary audiences and “Enchantment” includes an illustration of this fierce female warrior. Created by Morris Meredith William, his use of textures and tension creates such a dynamic rendering. You can feel the movement in her streaming hair and the purposeful forward stride of her body.
This disturbingly realistic depiction of the fallen World War I soldier in the muck of the trenches is evidence of how Norse mythology has become part of our modern consciousness. Created in 2014 by David Palumbo, the Valkyrie brandishing her sword, with arms soaked in blood, dubs this warrior with honor, thus guaranteeing his journey to Valhalla.
Within the realm of fantasy illustration, Norse mythology has surpassed, if not supplanted, that of the Green and Roman. According to Carl Jung, “religion was vital to humankind’s well-being, and that it was born from a set of innate archetypes present in the collective unconscious. The beliefs held by nearly every society contain remarkable similarities.” And, of course, the pagan Norse religion has commonalities with other cultures, but it has singular elements tied to its environment, experiences, and history.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 5, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.